Pop Smoke is 20 years old. He sounds like he’s 60. He sounds like his vocal chords are made of scorched asphalt and ground-up glass. He sounds like he ate volcanic ash for breakfast. He sounds like his body has been possessed by an ancient Sumerian demon — there is no Pop Smoke, only Zuul. New York has a long and proud tradition of rappers with grime-sautéed rasps like that. Most of them have been underground fight-starters. But Pop Smoke isn’t part of that tradition. Instead, Pop Smoke is the rare Brooklyn growler who’s got at least half a chance of becoming a pop star.
Maybe that’s because Pop Smoke exists outside of the New York rap lineage — or, at least, only within a very new part of the New York rap lineage. Right now, Pop Smoke is the most prominent voice to come out of the Brooklyn drill scene, which is its own strange little beast. Brooklyn drill is an outgrowth of Chicago drill, but it doesn’t sound much like any version of Chicago drill, past or present. Instead, the Brooklyn kids making this music are taking their aesthetic cues from the UK, where a mutant homegrown drill variant has begun to eclipse grime as the dominant young black underground sound.
22Gz’ “Suburban,” the first New York drill track to break out of its borough, was a collaboration with a London producer named AXL Beats. “No Suburban,” the Sheff G song that pushed the sound further and may have been intended as a shot at 22Gz, was another AXL beat. Pop Smoke, who has barely been making music for more than a year, has done most of his work with 808Melo, another London producer. That matters. It has an effect.
UK drill is its own thing because it comes from its own lineage — the UK pirate-radio history that runs through dancehall, house, hardcore techno, jungle, UK garage, and grime. There are sounds in UK drill that you never hear in American rap music: Giant globs of melodic bass-wobble, off-kilter woodblock knocks, ambient hums and whirrs. Those sounds are generations-removed echoes of rave, and the UK’s drill producers have combined them with the plangent pianos and thunderous kicks and gunshot sounds of Chicago drill. That UK drill style is its own special kind of bleak, and it’s become a cottage industry. A YouTube channel like GRM Daily has become a kind of UK answer to WorldStar — all these videos of young London dudes rapping in ski masks, set against cobblestone roads and foggy skies.
This sound has proven to be an ideal complement to Pop Smoke’s throat-scraped snarl. Pop Smoke has presence. He knows how to sink into a beat, to let that voice melt melodically. On his new single “Christopher Walking,” there’s a moment where Pop Smoke quotes the 50 Cent song “Window Shopper,” a track that came out when Pop Smoke was six years old. Pop Smoke has that same eerie singsong charisma, that ability to be sweet but threatening at the same time. In those 808Melo beats, Pop Smoke has found a sound as thick and dark and absorbing as his voice. On beats like that, Pop Smoke sounds casual and conversational, cool and uncaring. But he also sounds like a horseman of the apocalypse. It’s a strong combination.
Pop Smoke comes from the Brooklyn neighborhood Canarsie, a son of a Panamanian father and a Jamaican mother. For a while, it looked like he had a future in basketball, at least according to this XXL interview. He moved to suburban Philadelphia to play prep-school ball until he found out that he had a heart murmur at age 15. From there, he got into dealing drugs, and he spent two years on house arrest on a weapons charge. He started rapping, on an 808Melo beat pulled from YouTube, when he tagged along on a recording session with the Brooklyn rapper Jay Gwuapo. Gwuapo fell asleep, Pop Smoke jumped into the booth, and the resulting song, “MPR,” now has millions of views. It came out in December of 2018.
Right now, Pop Smoke’s calling card is “Welcome To The Party,” the song that came out a few months later and became a New York summer anthem last year. It’s a compelling piece of music — dense and heavy and forbidding, but also catchy and memorable and cathartically fun. Pop Smoke raps playfully, even if there’s nothing playful about his ragged husk of a voice. 808Melo feeds him a vengeful jungle bassline and a gasping choral drone, and Pop Smoke swallows them whole. Nicki Minaj, Skepta, and French Montana all jumped on remixes. It’s one of those exciting organic local-notoriety-to-international-fame stories that, thanks to the internet, can now bubble up within weeks.
Over the past few months, that Brooklyn/UK drill sound has become the new cool thing in rap — the thing that rap stars are now attempting to hijack and drift on. Drake came out with a pretty ludicrous AXL Beats-produced UK drill attempt called “War” on Christmas Eve. A week later, on his Jackboys compilation, Travis Scott teamed up with Pop Smoke on the 808Melo/AXL co-production “Gatti.” Neither song has been much of a hit, though “Gatti,” at least right now, is the only Pop Smoke-affiliated song that’s hit the Hot 100. Right now, nobody is quite sure what to do with that voice and that sound. But somebody will figure it out. It’ll probably be Pop Smoke himself.
Last week, Pop Smoke followed up his 2019 debut mixtape Meet The Woo with Meet The Woo 2, his first full-length statement since becoming almost famous. Meet The Woo 2 still sounds like a mixtape. It’s short — just over half an hour — and musically monolithic. Pop Smoke sounds the same when he’s talking to girls as he does when he’s shooting you. Right now, he doesn’t have a whole lot to say lyrically. Most of his lines are boilerplate about being a gangster but loving to party: “My lawyer like, ‘Poppy, why you brazen?’/ I said, ‘I pop a perc and feel amazing.’” When he even bothers with punchlines, they’re pretty elementary: “She snuck in the book, have her wait for arraignment/ She get dick and edible arrangements/ That’s the only form of payment.” But that doesn’t really matter. Pop Smoke has presence and energy, and both of those things come through on the tape.
The sound on Meet The Woo 2 swirls and grinds and pounds. It’s slick in its own way, but it’s ghostly, too. Pop Smoke, it emerges, makes a great complement to melodically inclined, high-pitched Bronx sing-rappers Lil Tjay and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. Their voices counterbalance Pop Smoke’s, and the resulting songs are equal parts slick and sinister. Even when he’s on his own, Pop Smoke bubbles over with sneaky, bloodthirsty hooks. Like the first Meet The Woo, the new mixtape is darkly and compulsively listenable — groaning gothic fight-music for the streaming era.
Pop Smoke is not a can’t-miss prospect. He’s a young New York rapper who proudly flaunts gang affiliations, and there are snares and tripwires everywhere for prospects like him. Previous figures like Bobby Shmurda (arguably New York’s first drill star) and Tekashi 6ix9ine went to prison just as they were blowing up. The NYPD is clearly paying close attention to Pop Smoke; last year, he was one of several New York rappers dropped from the city’s first Rolling Loud festival when the police sent a letter requesting their removal to the show’s promoters. And there’s always the chance that Pop Smoke will do something dumb, too. It might’ve already happened. Last month, NYPD arrested Pop Smoke on charges of transporting a stolen car across state lines; reportedly, the Rolls Royce Wraith that Pop Smoke had borrowed for a video shoot in LA mysteriously showed up in New York a week later, with Alabama plates. Not great! But if Pop Smoke can continue to hone his craft, if he can keep himself out of the shit, then he has the potential to become something special. Those two mixtapes are a real start.
1. Ramirez – “The Voices In The Dark”
I will never get sick of hearing rappers going nuts over the sound of early, evil Three 6 Mafia. This is the best example of that sound I’ve heard in a hot second. It’s mean.
2. Runway Richy – “Dumpin” (Feat. T.I.)
Runway Richy, from Atlanta, has a cool chest-out boom of a delivery, and he is brave enough to stand right next to a still-masterful T.I. over an evil slow-crawl beat that sounds like trap music from the era before trap music became “trap music.” Impressive!
3. Zuse – “Lose It”
Where has this guy been? In the early days of the last decade, Zuse was one of the Atlanta underground’s great firebreathers. Here, he’s all coiled tension. I kept waiting for the song to explode. It never quite happens. Instead, the ominous atmosphere just builds and builds.
4. Slayter – “Louis V Umbrella” (Feat. Sada Baby)
Sada Baby still cuts the dope with the Lactaid. Clip on a clip on a clip — this bitch man-made.
5. Bekah CC – “No Change”
This is some real Gummo shit right here. Some opiate-epidemic Clairo shit. Some existential dread shit. I am intrigued.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
When the Eminem song isn’t cinema pic.twitter.com/oNPWPyqQM7
— ᴍᴀᴛᴛ ᴊᴀᴍᴇs (@_Matt_James_) February 10, 2020